Below is a guest post by Mark P. Lagon, adjunct senior fellow for human rights at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
Solutions to global problems of pluralism and peace as in Syria and Egypt need not only international institutions, but also political imagination. Two institutional innovations, one American, the other international, show just what sort of impact creative thinking can have.
One U.S. innovation with enduring value is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It was crafted thirty years ago on the premise that U.S. Cold War interests were bound up in more nations becoming functioning democracies. Beyond holding elections, these countries needed capable parties, civil society actors, and leaders prepared to govern once elected. Rather than using covert CIA channels, the Endowment would embrace transparency, independently directing funds appropriated by Congress through non-governmental organizations to assist local democratization efforts. Critical to the NED’s success was its broad domestic base of support. Leaders of the Republican and Democratic Parties, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and (under the visionary leadership of Lane Kirkland) the AFL-CIO came together to form a partnership. Four implementing organs, one with each of those institutions, were created to carry out the Endowment’s mandate.
This partnership proved all the more valuable after the Soviet Bloc crumbled. Today the NED provides critical lines of communication between the United States and civil societies in other countries, providing an invaluable complement in turbulent transitions to blunter policy instruments like aid to foreign governments or the use of military force. Subsequent U.S. public-private partnerships—from the Clinton-Gore “Reinventing Government” initiative to the George W. Bush sponsored Millennium Challenge Corporation—follow the creative trail blazed during the Reagan era NED.
Kofi Annan was an innovator against atrocities. As head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, he had witnessed firsthand the inability and unwillingness of the UN Secretariat and its political master, the UN Security Council, to stem atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda while UN peacekeepers were in situ. After ascending to UN Secretary-General, he became determined this experience should never be repeated. But it was not just moral commitment which guided his response—it was creativity. He nudged the Canadian government to convene the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, shepherded by two former foreign ministers, Australian Gareth Evans and Algerian Mohammed Sahnoun. That Commission’s report uncorked the concept of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P).
Annan created another commission in 2004, the High Level Panel related to UN reform, paving a path to a 2005 UN World Summit at the 60th UN General Assembly, which endorsed R2P. That same year, a U.S. commission on the future of the United Nations, co-chaired by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Democratic Senate Leader George Mitchell, embraced the R2P norm. In subsequent years, the UN Security Council itself invoked the principle, first generally and then in the specific cases of Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. To be sure, the world should be chagrined at the failure to apply R2P to other atrocity situations. But it is amazing how quickly R2P has become embedded as a global norm—due, in no small measure, to Annan’s entrepreneurship.
Consider how different the result can be when a leader fails to show creativity. This is, alas, a common, non-partisan failing. George W. Bush found himself in a policy cul-de-sac in the face of persistent atrocities in Darfur, despite the president’s sincere, “not on my watch” concern. His administration pushed for generous funding of humanitarian operations, dispatched tough-minded special envoys like Richard S. Williamson, and cajoled the African Union into significant deployment of peacekeepers in Darfur. Still, it was beyond the imagination of the President and his military chiefs how to marshal military assets to address a problem that an official U.S. legal finding called genocide, given the vast footprint of Bush’s own military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lack of imagination has afflicted President Obama’s policy toward Syria. As Middle East specialist Michael Rubin observed on ABC’s This Week on July 7, 2013, the President resembles a dealer in blackjack: he waits to see all the other players’ hands before showing his own. In Syria, if Washington had not waited so long to assist the armed opposition to Assad’s butchery, the United States and partners might have strengthened the rebels’ more liberal elements, who will be critical to the nation’s future just governance.
President Obama’s wait-and-see approach is evident in Egypt. During the week of August 19, 2013, it remained ambiguous whether or not the United States had cut off military aid to Egypt following what cannot be called anything else than a “coup” and a brutal crackdown. The indecisiveness and lack of creativity of the administration’s current policy is consistent with its irresolution in previous phases of the Egyptian crisis, including following President Morsi’s suspension of judicial review; or earlier when thousands first took to the streets in Cairo in January 2011 insisting on Mubarak’s ouster; or earlier still when the Obama administration (like multiple predecessors) bankrolled Mubarak when he offered the false dichotomy of “back me or get the Muslim Brotherhood.” A longstanding, static U.S. policy squandered opportunities to support the very moderate political forces whose capacity to compete and govern is so needed today (exactly what NED was created to nurture).
NED and R2P show the creativity of leaders like Reagan and Annan—backed by plenty of help from others, like Lane Kirkland to Reagan, as well as Gareth Evans and Newt Gingrich, no less, to Annan. The lesson is an important one: Global governance requires creating institutions, partnerships and solutions…creatively.